Why painting of President Obama with burning Constitution is junk


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A Utah-based artist has published a painting on his website that shows a grim President Obama holding a copy of the U.S. Constitution in flames. Apparently it’s causing a bit of a stir. Here’s the caption I would put on the illustration:

‘A concerned President Obama, former constitutional law professor, points to the document’s destruction.’


That’s close to being the exact opposite of the description illustrator Jon McNaughton put on his painting, since reports say he wants Obama to be soundly defeated for reelection in the fall. But mine certainly fits the picture that he painted.

The painting is junk (yes, junk) not because its style is realist or anti-Modern or the image is pandering or inflammatory (you should pardon the expression). The primary reason McNaughton’s painting is a flop is simply that conflicting interpretations can be credibly applied to an image whose only function is to illustrate one idea. The artist has been quoted as saying that he ‘wanted to get the message across as clearly as I could.’ He failed.

McNaughton titled his illustration ‘One Nation Under Socialism,’ although nothing in the image he painted -- including Obama, brow furrowed and attired in a business suit -- contains any sign of collectivist principles. In the 1990s, McNaughton switched out of the Brigham Young University art program and into an illustration course because he didn’t like Modern art, but he seems not to have learned some of the fundamentals. The artist is arbitrarily assigning meaning through a title, but the picture doesn’t represent it.

One critic claimed that the painting is bad art because it ‘panders and preaches to the converted and tells them what they already believe,’ but that’s wrong too. It’s bad art because it does not create belief in the fiction that the artist has rendered. Instead, the artist’s belief must be explained.

I typically don’t comment on new paintings that I’ve seen only in reproduction and not in person. But a visit to McNaughton’s website, which includes a tea party-style rant beneath the picture, shows that reproduction is actually what he’s after.

Canvases like the Obama painting are made to be reproduced as cheesy giclée prints -- a mass-market process akin to a high-tech version of your home computer’s ink-jet printer. The process creates a simulation of paint on canvas. A giclée is an inauthentic painting, which is a pretty good description of McNaughton’s ‘One Nation Under Socialism.’


The system is related to one used by Thomas Kinkade, a conservative Christian (like McNaughton) whose schlocky paintings and mass-market prints made him very rich. Applying Kinkade’s successful schtick to Obama during an election season reads like a lame attempt to become the anti-Shepard Fairey, whose Obama ‘Hope’ poster made him a celebrity in 2008. The funny part is that McNaughton’s figure of Obama-with-Constitution is a pastiche lifted from an earlier work -- one his website says is among his most popular -- that shows Jesus holding the Constitution in his right hand while pointing to it with his left hand. The document isn’t burning in that one, but in the newer work Jesus has merely morphed into the president of the United States. It’s like the lineup of singers at the end of that old Michael Jackson ‘Black or White’ music video, who change gender and ethnicity as the tune bounces along.

Titled ‘One Nation Under God,’ the earlier hack propaganda seems content to pretend that the United States is a Christian nation, with Jesus as the law-giver. (Weirdly, a figure identified as James Madison stands directly behind the Constitution, even though Madison famously rejected any religious sanction for government authority.) A professor of constitutional law who knows that America was instead founded as a secular nation, one where the freedom to practice any religion or no religion is fundamental, would probably blanch if he saw it.


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--Christopher Knight